LOS ANGELES—The James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) has just directed its Million Dollar Challenge toward the celebrity "psychic mediums" featured on last night’s episode of ABC’s Primetime Nightline: Beyond Belief.1

“James Van Praagh and Allison DuBois have turned the huckster art of ‘cold reading’ into a multi-million-dollar industry, preying on families’ deepest fears and regrets,” said James Randi, founder of the JREF and a renowned magician and skeptic who also appeared in the episode. “They should be embarrassed by the transparent performances they revealed to the world on last night’s show.”

The JREF’s Million Dollar Challenge Director, Banachek, also featured in the episode, said, “We’re issuing a challenge to these fakers: for once, show that you can get this supposedly supernatural knowledge without cheating. If one of you can demonstrate your ‘psychic’ abilities on randomly chosen strangers—not celebrities—under mutually-agreed conditions, without relying on known cold-reading techniques such as fishing around with vague questions, and without just using Google—we will donate our million dollars to you or to the charity of your choice.”

What Happened?

In last night’s episode on “Psychic Powers,” self-proclaimed psychic medium James Van Praagh performed a reading on Good Morning America anchor Josh Elliott. Elliott initially appeared surprised by Van Praagh’s accuracy before finally revealing that “every talking point of the reading” seemed to have been lifted from a two-year-old interview with Elliott2 that was available through a simple internet search. When Van Praagh was asked to repeat his performance on the spot with an ABC producer, he declined to try, claiming he had become too tired.

In a later scene, “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” reality-show actor Allison DuBois, also billed as the inspiration for the TV drama Medium, performed a similar reading on ABC News correspondent David Wright. Self-proclaimed medium Rebecca Rosen also performed a reading, and both readings focused on Wright’s family and his late mother. Wright was surprised by their accuracy and said they revealed “details that don’t pop up on Google.” Yet, shortly after the show aired, a Twitter user posted a link to a New York Times wedding announcement3 that contained the relevant details about the Wright family.

How They Do It

“Cold reading” is a set of techniques used by mentalists and so-called psychics in which personal information is elicited from a person, often through vague or leading questions, and then repeated back to the person in order to persuade them that the performer has supernatural access to that information.4 Another mentalism technique, called “hot reading,” involves obtaining information on a person in advance by surreptitious means. Both techniques are commonly used to create the illusion of psychic powers where none exist.

[1] http://abc.go.com/watch/primetime-nightline-beyond-belief/SH55131205/VD55140044/psychic-power
[2] http://thebiglead.com/index.php/2009/06/19/a-qa-with-espns-josh-elliott/
[3] http://www.nytimes.com/2005/10/30/fashion/weddings/30bran.html
[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cold_reading

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The James Randi Educational Foundation was founded in 1996 to expose charlatans and help people defend themselves from paranormal and pseudoscientific claims. The JREF offers a still-unclaimed million-dollar reward for anyone who can produce evidence of paranormal abilities under controlled conditions. Through scholarships, workshops, and innovative resources for educators, the JREF works to inspire this investigative spirit in a new generation of critical thinkers. | www.randi.org